I was grateful to be part of a workshop this week hosted by the Australian Catholic Youth Council in North Sydney. It drew together a select group of parish and diocesan youth leaders in conversation with Australia’s delegates for the October Synod on youth, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP and Bishop Mark Edwards OMI, as well as Archbishop Comensoli.
It was a great source of learning and uplifting to meet young leaders who are exercising what can only be described as remarkable spiritual entrepreneurship within the Church in Australia. Amidst the polarisations that can mark our Church these are the young witnesses bringing fresh heart to our faith, with the bold humility well described by an ancient apologist – ‘we others, we speak little, but we live’.
The fifteenth ordinary general assembly will focus on young people, faith and vocational discernment between 3-28 October 2018. The Synod and its outcomes will provide a telling insight into the Church’s approach to evangelisation at this time. This is because our commitment to reach out to the young reflects our commitment to reach out to all those who are unchurched or weighing up if the Catholic faith might still be central or relevant to the everyday project of their lives.
The reality of disengagement and even disaffiliation from the Church on the part of young people will always be a confrontation as it suggests something about ourselves – about our capacity for relationships of discipleship with young people both personally and as a community of faith.
The conspicuous absence of young people from many of our communities, worshipping life and ordinary ministries says something about our ability to enter into their experience of life, to grasp their sensibilities, and recognise their questions and searching as filled with promise and as authentic, a way of approaching God rather than an affront or the hubris of disobedience. The uneven journey of young people within the Church throws light on our ability to dialogue with those unlike ourselves and on our capacity to suggest compelling and personal forms of holiness amid a host of unsatisfying cultural placebos. Fundamentally, the presence or otherwise of young people in our Christian community reflects our ability to witness to and proclaim the Gospel as a way of life, as an invitation to fall in love rather than an obligation to fall in line.
Recognising the Reality
As the Church in Australia considers its future, it is imperative to understand the interactions and experiences that comprise young people’s lives for these provide the building blocks for renewed mission with and to young people. While the Catholic faith may today occupy less surface space in Australian culture, the rise of dedicated disciples within promises to bring new depths to our Christian living and cultural impact, and encourage the whole Church in its mission to the concrete people of each generation.
While the national survey and report findings (‘Called to Fullness of Life and Love’) produced by the Australian Catholic bishops ahead of the Synod did tend to underrepresent young people weakly attached to the Church, and overrepresent young adults who are highly involved, it nevertheless stands as a valuable and significant window into the experience of young Australians with regards faith and the Church.
Affirmed by the survey is the primary influence on young people of family and friends. These two natural influences can nurture, support and raise up faith. Each can also lead young people toward disaffiliation. This phenomenon can occur, for instance, when young people feel forced to attend Church with family members, perceive hypocrisy in the lives of those closest to them, come forward from situations which may not mirror a Christian understanding of marriage and family (e.g. a third of all births in Australia are now ex-nuptial births) or when they are not supported by peers who value faith or religious practice.
Challengingly, among Australian Catholic youth the influence of Church or religious leaders in their key decisions and directions is thin, identified as significant by just 11% of those surveyed and aged between 16-18 years. This meek influence might be explained by a lack of personal relationship amongst some clergy and young people, the broader collapse of the Church’s credibility in the light of the sexual abuse crisis, and the real struggle of Church leaders to listen or ‘hold’ the questions that young people are asking of the Church. On this score, young Australian Catholics rated their experience of being listened at a modest 5.9 out of 10.
A number of young people have expressed their weariness at being disregarded within our faith communities because of their youth or else being catechised without the opportunity to enter into genuine dialogue about the issues of faith and belief that are significant to them. It is certainly true that when the Church appears more concerned with behaviour modification than a personal encounter with the young in Christ, our ecclesial influence will wane and the potential for accompaniment will give way to alienation.
The reason that our influence – and therefore our listening – matters a great deal is because young Catholics are actively deciding whether faith and the Church will be a part of their life and future, and they are making these decisions from early adolescence. Disaffiliation is not a choice that is made with haste. As it has been suggested, it often mirrors the breakdown of any significant relationship – it happens one ‘chip’ at a time until one partner has had enough and ultimately decides it is ‘done’. Provocations toward a final decision against the Church or Catholic faith can include a struggle with or disagreement with a particular Church teaching or teachings, a negative interaction with a Church leader or faith community, a process of steady emancipation from parents or grandparents committed to practice, and the accumulation of uninspired or wearisome experiences of the Church over time. Hence, the reported sense of relief for young people when they leave.
Embracing the total picture of the reality of young people vis-à-vis the Church also means acknowledging those who remain engaged with the life and mission of the Church, of whom diversity remains a mark. Some young adults in the Australian survey passionately engage with traditional Catholic expressions of prayer and liturgy. Some want clarity of Church teaching amidst confusion and the cacophony of the blogosphere, while others seek less catechesis and dogmatism and more personal concern. Others shared their negative experiences when they have tried to promote Church teaching and practice in their own schools and parishes, and a lack of effective support in their practice of parish ministry, while others expressed their difficulty with the Church’s understanding of sexuality and relationships.
Given the range of influences on young people, within and outside the Church, and their mixed experiences of faith, there is no one answer for the complexity of these situations, at least not without doing violence to the personal condition and circumstance of each young person which is the very subject of our evangelising mission.
Positively, when Australian youth were asked how the Church can be of help to them, the responses actively invited our communities to provide guidance, to assist and counsel young people in their anxieties, personal challenges, understanding of sexuality and relationship issues. As the meaning and direction of life is not uncovered in a single moment, it is incumbent upon the Church to journey with young lives in realising their own dignity and personal mission, both of which express a fundamental call to holiness.
The Synod’s preparatory document acknowledges that condescension and judgement are not exactly helpful in this project. It also insists that mutual encounter rather than one-sided prescription will be the way in which we discover a personal form of holy living, “No vocation, especially within the Church, can be placed outside [the] outgoing dynamism of dialogue”. This is because our vocational horizon is not “a pre-determined fate, a task to be carried out, a ready-made script . . . God takes seriously the freedom He has given to human beings and responding to his call is a commitment that requires work, imagination, audacity, willingness to make progress also by trial and error”. Accompaniment and an apprenticeship in the life of faith are essential to growth in holiness, pursued by a state of life and also in professional life.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis has already advised “The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life”. It demands patience but can be sustained with the assurance that it has an immediate purpose, “To accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father . . . Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelisation”.
Frustratingly for many, the accompaniment urgently desired by young Australian Catholics and urged by Pope Francis cannot be found neatly contained within a package or program. It demands in fact an entire culture of ecclesial life in which discernment is a norm and in regular evidence. When genuine discernment is not practiced in our sacramental programs, leading to fruitless reception, when RCIA processes teach people about Catholicism but neglect to train them to live as disciples, when parish pastoral councils and parish groups are more focused on ‘who will do it?’ rather than ‘where are we going?’, the offer of accompaniment to young people will appear more like false advertising than the expression of a community fully open to what God wants for the Church. The preparatory document for the Synod minces no words, “We cannot expect our offer of pastoral accompaniment towards vocational discernment to be credible to young people, unless we show that we are able to practice discernment in the ordinary life of the Church”.
If disaffiliation from Catholic faith and the Church is a process that unfolds over time, and the reasons that people leave contain the reasons they might return, then we must commit ourselves to the patient and thoroughgoing work of creating cultures in which accompaniment is not reserved for a select few or the ‘super spiritual’ but is the ordinary experience of young people in their contact with the Church.
As set out in the preparations for the Synod, it will demand of our communities mature disciples who are faithful Christians engaged with the Church and the wider world, who constantly seek holiness, can be a confidant without judgement, who actively listen to needs and respond in kind, are deeply loving and self-aware, and who can acknowledge their own limits and know the joy and sorrows of the spiritual journey. In confronting the challenges and listening to the hopes of the young, we pray that the October Synod will prompt this depth of conversion in each of us as witnesses to God’s mission.
 Australian Institute of Family Studies, Snapshots of Family Relationships 2008.
 Dantis, Trudy and Reid, Stephen, Called to Fullness of Life and Love: National Report on the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Youth Survey 2017 (Pastoral Research Office, 2018), 30.
 McCarty, Robert J., and Vitek, John M. Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics (2017), 11.
 Ibid., 27.
 Dantis and Reid, 34-36.
 Dantis and Reid, 41.
 Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 140.
 Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 121.
 Evangelii Gaudium 169.
 Evangelii Gaudium 170;173.
 Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 139.
 Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 132.